Can a Culture Really Be "Good" or "Bad"?

Can we really declare a culture "good" or "bad"? Or is it more subjective, in the same way that we can't all agree on what comprises good food, music, or an ideal partner? 

There is a lot of literature circulating the media on toxic or sick workplace cultures. There's just as many with checklists on what makes a progressiveremarkable, or successful company culture. But are those fair statements? 

While we could likely agree on traits that fit into the extremes of either category of good and bad, they'd likely be the same traits we see as making any human unethical: ego-centric, manipulative, racist, sexist, rude -- or virtuous: honest, empathetic, non-judgemental, supportive, fair.

Then again, personal values are also subjective. Where one person might value profit over all else, another might value creativity, another social impact, another authentic human connection. Is it really fair to say one person's value set is good or bad? 

Better terminology than good/healthy or bad/sick culture might lay in more descriptive verbiage, as in, they have "a culture of ______." For example, a culture of courage, caring, or transparency. Those are not only more specific, but they're more tangible too. They actually mean something. They're something you can easily apply. 

When aspiring to build a "great" culture, ask yourselves -- and your team -- what the great virtues are that you value, and aspire to have more of in your company. Are they something like transparency, purpose, open communication, lack of hierarchy, autonomy, contribution, or personal development? Then make those your goals. Not just to be great.

The challenge with putting companies in good or bad is that they'll inevitably receive critique under either lens. This is one of the things that comes up constantly. Praise any company culture -- even with heralded with remarkable cultural initiatves like Airbnb -- and you'll inevitably stumble across another article poking holes into their model to prove imperfections.

But if we didn't use sweeping black and white blanket statements? These debates might be a lot less hostile, and the commendations much more concrete.